Rosters are set. Players are in the gym. Hope is in full tilt.
As I wrote last month, optimism is abound in the NBA. Super teams, for now, are a thing of the past as the Golden State Warriors and reigning champions Toronto Raptors lost their Finals MVPs in Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, respectively. Right now, all 30 teams are undefeated.
Even though the NBA is wide open this year, the league is still a zero-sum game. Sadly, every team can’t exceed expectations and there will be some teams that we look back on in April that make us wonder what the [blank] were we thinking in August.
At the risk of looking dumb later in April, here’s what I’m thinking in August. Here are my three locks on the over (teams to exceed expectations) and three locks on the under (teams to miss expectations) compared to their projected win totals at the Westgate Superbook.
Sixers over 55 wins
Can you be a sleeper team when you’re pegged for 55 wins? I think so. The Sixers have the best shot at being a 60-win team in the regular season. This defense has a chance to be historically good and most people overlook that side of the floor when they assess team projections.
Following the blueprint of the NBA’s top defending team last season, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Sixers will boast a massive frontline of 6-foot-9 Tobias Harris, 6-foot-10 Al Horford and 7-footer Joel Embiid -- not to mention 6-foot-10 Ben Simmons and 6-foot-6 Josh Richardson.
The Sixers underperformed defensively last season with the 14th-best ranking in defensive efficiency. But with the core’s continuity, a full training camp and the addition of Horford, it’s a good bet that this team will jump into a top five defensive unit. Assuming full health, I see the Sixers having the No. 1 defense just like the Bucks did after fielding the 18th-best defense in 2017-18.
Offensively, I like Harris’ chances of a breakout season, filling Jimmy Butler’s role as closer. Horford’s presence will keep Embiid fresh in his age-25 season and I’m a fan of Richardson as the do-it-all role player. Some might feel queasy about the reliance of rookies Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle, but I think the Sixers finish the season with the East’s top seed. If Simmons adds a jump shot, they’re championship favorites.
Nuggets over 52.5 wins
On the free-agency wrap-up Habershow episode with ESPN’s Amin Elhassan, we discussed how the Nuggets’ continuity is quietly making them winners this offseason. In a summer defined by player movement, the Nuggets retained every rotation player from a 54-win team while adding Jerami Grant and red-shirt rookie Michael Porter Jr. to the mix.
Another reason to be optimistic? This was the fifth-youngest team in the NBA last season, per Basketball Reference. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are still under 25 years old and Gary Harris turns 25 in September. Paul Millsap, 34, remains the only rotation player in his 30s. For the bulk of the roster, the best is yet to come.
While the top of the West figure to need time to figure out their chemistry, the Nuggets will be able to hit the ground running. If they somehow stumble out of the gate, I think they’re a sneaky candidate to make a play for Chris Paul. As the Oklahoma City Thunder look to unload payroll, Millsap’s expiring $30.5 million contract matches up nicely with Paul’s big contract and now they have Grant to fill in for Millsap. Even if the Nuggets get off to a slow start, they have ways to upgrade for a title run. Take the over.
Pelicans over 39 wins
If you’re going to have Zion Williamson, you better load up on shooting. And that’s what executive vice president David Griffin did this offseason. He landed perhaps the best shooter on the market, JJ Redick, and brought in Italian sharpshooter Nicolo Melli to further space the floor as well.
Where I think this team will really surprise is on the defensive end. Jrue Holiday and Derrick Favors could realistically make one of the 2019-20 All-Defense teams, while Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart could join them soon. Some numbers to back that up: Favors, Ball and Hart ranked inside the top five in defensive real plus-minus at their position while Holiday checked in at No. 8 among point guards (Holiday’s better than that in my book).
Williamson has the size and skill to be the rare above-average player in his rookie season. With veteran leadership, a revamped medical staff and stout defense, I think the Pelicans will be in the playoff mix next season. A 39-43 record seems on the low end.
Clippers under 54.5 wins
I hate to throw cold water on Steve Ballmer’s woo!-fest, but I’m still worried about Paul George’s short-term health. After undergoing surgery on both of his shoulders this summer, George stayed mum on his return timetable at the Clippers’ introduction presser. There are also murmurs that he won’t be back until November. For regular-season win projections, that’s not good news.
Beyond George’s return from double shoulder surgery, I think coach Doc Rivers will prioritize the postseason just like the Raptors did last season with Kawhi Leonard. While he may not miss 22 games like he did last season, I would expect the Clippers to be conservative when handling the face of their franchise. If Leonard plays half the team’s back-to-backs I’ll be stunned.
Yes, the Clippers won the offseason by getting two MVP candidates, but questions about their health make me nervous in the regular season. Postseason is a different story. I’m bearish on the Clippers, but that changes in May.
Nets under 43.5 wins
Boston fans will nod their heads as I say this: Development isn’t linear, especially with a Kyrie Irving team. Yes, the youthful Nets surprised everybody by landing Irving and Kevin Durant this summer after a Cinderella run to the playoffs. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if they missed the playoffs next season.
The health of Irving’s right knee worried many executives this offseason; and that’s before we mention this relevant fact from Basketball Reference tracking: Irving’s teams have collectively fallen 34 wins short of their over/under projections since 2012-13 season, hitting the under on five of their last seven seasons (settle down, Celtics fans).
I don’t see Irving as a significant upgrade over D’Angelo Russell to balance out the injury risk; Irving has missed an average of 16.5 games per season over the last four seasons. If he misses 15-20 games next season, this season could go south quickly (Durant likely won’t come to the rescue until 2020-21.) Getting Irving and Durant was a big victory for the franchise, but I don’t see actual wins piling up until Durant comes back.
Hawks under 33.5 wins
The Hawks’ State Farm Arena scoreboard will need some load management days next season. Trae Young and John Collins are studs on the offensive end. Defensively, though? Yikes.
This team is my pick for the worst defensive unit in the NBA next season. They were 28th in the league last season on defense, and that was with solid rim protector DeWayne Dedmon in the fold. Now he’s in Sacramento, which leaves Alex Len to clean up the mess in front of him. They also added Jabari Parker, who is famously not too interested in playing defense.
When your two top defenders may be a rookie (De’Andre Hunter) and a 42-year-old (Vince Carter), that’s not a good sign. This will be a League Pass must-watch team because of Young and Collins, but I don’t see them jumping up the standings until they add some defensive muscle.